By Kevin Sweeney
2 years in a row, scheduling has been a major storyline in the Big Ten entering the season. Last year, discussion centered around the league’s one-week-early conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. This year, it’s a move to a 20-game conference schedule drawing buzz. The move, seen by critics as standing in the way of mid-majors’ ability to “schedule up” in the non-conference, will require the Big Ten to play 2 conference games in early December to fit in the games. As a hoops fan, conference battles in an otherwise-dry time of year is great news, though it does create some controversy nonetheless.
Regardless of scheduling discussions, the Big Ten has a chance to be the nation’s most exciting conference this season. There aren’t a ton of clear top 25 teams, but there’s also no team other than perhaps Rutgers that can’t realistically compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. Here’s my best crack at projecting a league that will likely see a lot of ties in the middle tier:
This definitely won’t be the popular pick at the top, but the defending national runner-ups are my pick to grab the league’s top spot. A significant part of this is me being lower on Michigan State than consensus, but I’m also probably a shade higher on John Beilein’s crew than others. I’m buying all the Jordan Poole stock still available as one of the nation’s breakout stars, creating one of the nation’s best backcourts with Zavier Simpson and Charles Matthews. Add in highly-regarded freshman Ignas Bradzeikis, a versatile wing who can play 2-4, and Beilein has something brewing once again in Ann Arbor.
#2. Michigan State
A 30-win team with 3 returning double digit scorers not getting the nod for #1 in the Big Ten?
When put like that, it definitely seems odd that I don’t have the Spartans topping the conference, but this talented team has clear flaws. A defense that was among the nation’s best last season should swing in the other direction this season. Jaren Jackson’s shot-blocking prowess made MSU the nation’s best 2-point FG% defense, and Miles Bridges’ athleticism and versatility made him a strong perimeter defender. Both are gone, and now Sparty may sport one of the nation’s worst perimeter defenses without a high-level rim protector to turn shots away. Despite their offensive prowess, Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, and Josh Langford are all below-average perimeter defenders. The Nick Ward/Xavier Tillman platoon at center will be incredibly productive on the glass and efficient around the rim, which is why I’m not selling all my stock.
To me, this is a top 20 team but not a top 10-12 team.
Archie Miller’s months-long courtship of in-state sensation Romeo Langford, with the likely one-and-done prospect choosing to play his college ball in Bloomington after much consideration. Langford’s 3-level scoring ability on the wing paired with returning star Juwan Morgan gives the Hoosiers one of the nation’s most talented duos, enough to bring IU back to the NCAA Tournament after a two season absence. Point guard concerns linger– another in-state freshman, Robert Phinisee, is seen as the floor general of the future but Devonte Green seems likely to start at least early on. If that duo can provide league-average point guard play, the Hoosiers will be a top 25 team and can perhaps contend for a conference title.
Other than Carsen Edwards, this is a completely new-look Purdue club for Matt Painter. 4 starters that have meant so much to the program over the last 4 years graduate, and Painter will look to craft a rotation around their star scoring guard. The starting unit shakes out fairly clearly, with Nojel Eastern sharing ball-handling duties with Edwards, Ryan Cline claiming Dakota Mathias’ role as a spot shooter, Dartmouth grad transfer Evan Boudreaux slotting in at the 4, and towering center Matt Haarms anchoring the defense. There’s a severe lack of offensive creation ability beyond Edwards in that group, and Painter will hope that freshman Eric Hunter can provide some scoring punch off the bench. Edwards will keep them in a lot of games, but it will be the talent around him that will determine just how good this team will be.
#5. Ohio State
Perhaps I’m being overly bullish on Chris Holtmann’s coaching ability, but I was floored by what he did with last season’s club. Keita Bates-Diop is gone, as are Jae’Sean Tate and Kam Williams. Holtmann will look to replace that talented trio with a strong freshman class and the development of returners like Musa Jallow, Kyle Young, and Andre Wesson, along with Wake Forest grad transfer Keyshawn Woods. Woods’ shooting ability pairs nicely with point guard CJ Jackson, whose improvement under Holtmann was a huge reason for the Buckeyes’ success last season. The offense will run through the post and bruising big man Kaleb Wesson, a talented back-to-the-basket scorer. The biggest thing for OSU is finding enough offense to win behind a defense that should be excellent once again. I’ll bet on Holtmann to find a way.
Getting healthy is the biggest addition for the Badgers. A backcourt that already lacked talent lost starting point guard D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King, and saw Brad Davison limited with a shoulder injury for much of the season. While it was the worst season in Madison since the mid-90’s, the Badgers did get better as the season went on and were feisty in the Big Ten Tournament, giving us reason for optimism with the return of Trice and King. Ethan Happ is back for one final year of college basketball, and his unique game is still a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. The talent level is still relatively low for Wisconsin standards, but the Badgers should have enough to be back in NCAA Tournament contention this year.
Perhaps no team drummed up more debate last season than Nebraska, whose surprising 13-5 Big Ten mark thanks in no small part to an extremely fortuitous conference schedule gave them a polarizing resume in the lead-up to Selection Sunday. With the Huskers bringing back their top 4 scorers from last season, a lot of preseason hype has built up around Lincoln. I’m not sold. That top 4 is as good a quartet as any in the Big Ten, especially with Isaiah Roby still just scratching the surface of his potential. But beyond that group, I’m not sure there’s a Big Ten-caliber rotation player on the roster. The Huskers were at their best with the switchable Roby at the 5, but the transfer of Jordy Tshimanga leaves Nebraska without a true big man ready to bang in the post with the biggest bodies in the Big Ten. The reserves in the backcourt aren’t great options either, leaving Tim Miles without much margin for error in the event of injury or foul trouble. It’s huge for Miles’ future that he find a way to get this group to the NCAA Tournament, as there’s a good chance the entire core 4 departs after this season.
Another coach entering a critical year of his tenure, it may be NCAA Tournament or job hunting for Mark Turgeon. The Terps stumbled to an 8-10 mark in conference last season after Justin Jackson missed all of Big Ten play due to injury, and both Jackson and star guard Kevin Huerter depart early for the NBA. That leaves just Anthony Cowan of that vaunted 3-man class that came in with such fanfare in 2016. In to save the day is another strong freshman class, a 6-man 2018 group headlined by 5-star big man Jalen Smith. Smith will pair perfectly with high-upside sophomore Bruno Fernando in a frontcourt that will be among the Big Ten’s best. Floor spacing remains a major concern, with non-shooting wing Darryl Morsell likely to spend a majority of the time at the 3 next to 2 big men. Freshmen guards Serrell Smith, Eric Ayala, and Aaron Wiggins are more than capable of making an immediate impact, but they’ll need to consistently produce for the Terps to dance.
Full disclosure: I’m a student at Northwestern. I obviously do everything I can to not let bias seep into my work, but I wanted to acknowledge it anyway (especially because I’m higher on them than most).
From 2-5, Northwestern’s roster is really good. NCAA Tournament good. Dererk Pardon is an incredibly consistent big man who can score with both hands and is an excellent passer. Vic Law has 3&D written all over him, and his ability to create offense will be important. The ‘Cats also add the best recruiting class in program history, an elite grad transfer in Ryan Taylor, and a versatile wing who can really shoot it in AJ Turner (Boston College). Despite the graduations of Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey, this is the most talented roster in Northwestern history.
The point guard situation? Well, that’s a bit hairy. Jordan Lathon was seen as the point guard of the future, but his admission was revoked in May with no time to find an adequate replacement. Reclassified 2019 prospect Ryan Greer may not be ready to go, and Jordan Ash is a career backup who I don’t see as a viable starter at the position. Anthony Gaines got some time at the point guard spot last year when McIntosh went down and performed well, and that might be the recipe that works for Northwestern with Law, Taylor, and Turner all splitting up some creation duties. If Chris Collins can crack his point guard conundrum, Northwestern is in great shape to surprise. If not, it will consistently hold back an otherwise-strong roster.
Last season was disastrous in every regard for Minnesota. Entering the season with high expectations, injuries, suspensions, and overall poor play took down a Golden Gopher team that had a ton of potential. By Big Ten play, Minnesota was bad on offense and bad an on defense, hardly a good combination. But the future is bright, with dynamic wing Amir Coffey and talented big Eric Curry back healthy and Rich Pitino bringing in a talented in-state recruiting class headlined by rim protector Daniel Oturu. Point guard concerns are present after the departure of Nate Mason, with scoring point Isaiah Washington likely getting the keys. Double-double machine Jordan Murphy is still present though, and with a healthy core, Minnesota should be in the mix for a bid again.
Year one for Brad Underwood was bumpier than expected, with the Illini slumping to a 14-18 mark and transfers leaving the roster in a state of flux for 2018-19. However, Underwood has recruited well, with the jewel being Chicago 5-star Ayo Dosunmu. Ayo pairs with Trent Frazier to give Illinois an incredibly talented backcourt, and I’m huge on Kipper Nichols in that combo forward role. Underwood should have the depth in the backcourt to run his aggressive defensive system. However, the frontcourt is extremely flawed, with 3 non-elite freshmen and slow-footed grad transfer Adonis De La Rosa making up the center spot. Improvement should be expected, but this feels like an NIT team.
Big things were expected of the Hawkeyes in 2017-18, but the roster was incredibly flawed. Fran McCaffery’s teams always have gambled on defense, relying on aggressive point guard defense and long wings who can take the ball away and get easy buckets. This team had neither, and the Hawkeyes were largely a trainwreck defensively because of it. The health of Connor McCaffery and the addition of in-state scoring guard Joe Wieskamp should help with ball control, but is it enough to get over the hump? This feels like a boom-or-bust season for the Hawkeyes.
#13. Penn State
The Nittany Lions finally built some momentum under Pat Chambers in 2017-18, getting better as the season went on and winning the NIT. However, much of the positivity in Happy Valley was destroyed by Tony Carr leaving early for the NBA Draft, leaving the Nittany Lions without a point guard. The frontcourt will still be strong, and PSU was a different team with Josh Reaves on the floor last season. Someone will have to create offense though, and Pat Chambers isn’t a guy I’ll generally bet on “finding a way”.
Sorry, Rutgers. I really like you. I really like Steve Pikiell. This program is improving. You just aren’t there yet.
Landing top-75 recruit Montez Mathis was a major win for Pikiell, and the addition of Quinnipiac transfer Peter Kiss to pair with Mathis and promising lead guard Geo Baker gives the Scarlet Knight enough in the backcourt to steal some games. RU will be scrappy, strong defensively, and win some games they shouldn’t. They just need to keep this group together into next season, land a couple more impact pieces, and then they’ll have a chance to move up the standings.
All-Conference First Team:
- Cassius Winston– Michigan State (12.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 6.9 apg, .507/.497/.900)
- Carsen Edwards– Purdue (18.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, .458/.406/.824)
- Juwan Morgan– Indiana (16.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, .579/.302/.631)
- Jordan Murphy– Minnesota (16.8 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 1.4 apg, .525/.314/.699)
- Ethan Happ– Wisconsin (17.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, .528/.091/.550)
Player of the Year: Carsen Edwards (Purdue)
Edwards is going to score a lot of points, that’s for sure. The key for him is being consistent and efficient without the stability of the a veteran group with multiple established scorers around him. Edwards has unbelievable talent, and he should be in All-American consideration if he lives up to the lofty expectations surrounding him this season.
Breakout Player: Jordan Poole (Michigan)
As I wrote earlier, I’m all aboard the Poole hype train. He can really shoot the ball, and showed off an improved ability to create off the dribble during the Wolverines’ summer trip to Europe. We all know John Beilein can develop guards, and I can’t wait to see the finished product when the season gets underway.
Newcomer of the Year: Romeo Langford (Indiana)
The expectations heaped upon the New Albany native this season will be unreal. Yet somehow, Langford has always found a way to live up to the hype, and he can add to his folk hero status by returning the Hoosiers to glory this season. His polished game should fit seamlessly into college basketball, and I expect Langford to be one of the best pure scorers in the Big Ten from Day 1.